Interviews Aug 12, 2015 | 8:47 PMby Colin McGourty

Naiditsch: “I’m not afraid of anybody”

Arkadij Naiditsch at the 2015 GRENKE Chess Classic | photo: Georgios Souleidis, official website

Before Fabiano Caruana switched to the US it was rumoured he’d been offered a mouth-watering sum of money to play for Azerbaijan instead. Whatever the truth of that, previous German no. 1 Arkadij Naiditsch has now made the switch, and in a new interview with Azerbaijani website Extra Time he pulls no punches, claiming the German Chess Federation treats chess as a hobby. He also reveals he’s currently living in Baku and planning to be based there for the next ten years.

Azerbaijan is set to host the World Cup later this year and then the Chess Olympiad in 2016, and the country’s ambitions don’t stop at organising the events. They also want to put in a good performance, and have moved to replace the yawning gap in their line-up left by the tragically young death of Vugar Gashimov. Arkadij Naiditsch is the man chosen to boost their chances, and after months of rumours his switch was finally confirmed by FIDE with the publication of the August 1st rating list.

In an interview with Extra Time he talked about the motivation for his move and what he expects the future to bring:

First of all, could you tell us about the conflict which arose with the German Chess Federation?

Conflict is probably not quite the right word. We simple had no relations, and that wasn’t just for one or two years. For quite a lot of years we had no contact. I always strove to be professional and upheld the view that chess is a professional sport. It’s not playing a little billiards here and a little chess there. We do a great deal of work and put everything into tournaments. The German Chess Federation, though, treats this sport as a hobby. I couldn’t, of course, come to terms with that attitude, since I’ve always considered chess a professional sport. That means corresponding fees, proper training sessions before tournaments and giving your all in tournament themselves.

Germany, coached by Rustam Kasimdzhanov, surprised everyone by winning the 2011 European Team Championship | photo: official website

Over the course of ten years I was German no. 1, but they never paid me any attention. Against that backdrop our relationship soured. After the European Team Championship in 2011, when we won gold medals, we had a small falling out. At that point the federation did nothing to mark our victory. No interviews were organised, there was nothing in honour of the players and so on. We’d won the continental championship, they congratulated us and that was the end of it. It seems to me that after such a success it would have been possible to undertake some steps towards finding sponsors and strengthening the team, especially as Germany isn’t the weakest country in Europe financially. All of that was, of course, a great disappointment, give that over the course of so many years I’d represented Germany pretty successfully on the international stage.

Perhaps that attitude is linked to chess not being so popular in Germany?

The popularity of a sport is one aspect of the issue, but a professional relationship to it is another. They state officially in interviews that chess is a hobby, that people play in clubs and that’s wonderful, but they’re not interested in professional chess at all. At the very least it’s unpleasant for me, as a chess professional, to hear such things. I consider chess a very interesting and at the same time fairly tough sport. We really do give a lot to the game. Over the course of a year a chess player spends around 200 days at tournaments, during which family and friends take a back seat.

And what about chess tournaments that are held there e.g. the traditional supertournament in Dortmund?

They’re mainly financed by private sponsors rather than the federation, which has nothing to do with those events.

Do the sponsors who finance tournaments held in Germany not show any interest in sponsoring the national team?

In Europe everyone tries to do things systematically. You can’t take step three before step two. In order to finance the team the sponsor needs to turn to the federation, and I don’t know whether there were any contacts or not. For sponsors in Germany it’s very important to have a positive name and they don’t want to be involved with anything that might reflect negatively on the image of the company. Imagine a company taking over the financing of the team and the federation once more making some kind of negative statement. As a result, there’s almost no sponsorship of chess in as rich a country as Germany.

When did you receive the offer to play for Azerbaijan and what was your first reaction?

I’m an ambitious person. I’m interested in the principle that sportsmen fight for something. I consider simply taking part incorrect for a sportsman. Azerbaijan is one of the top chess powers in the world and it was, of course, very pleasant for me to be taken into consideration as a candidate for the team. I was very glad to get the chance to play in such a strong team and fight for medals. As for when the offer was made: we started to hold negotiations quite a long time ago. The first meeting about the topic took place in December last year. In February-March we had more detailed negotiations. Since then some details were resolved and as a result my switch took place not long ago at all.

Are you planning to live permanently in Azerbaijan or will you stay in Germany?

Arkadij married Israeli WIM Yuliya Shvayger in October last year | photo:

My wife and I have moved to Baku to settle down here. We’ve already rented an apartment. Moreover, in the near future my wife and I would like to have children. We’ll see how life works out, but we really hope that for at least the next ten years we’ll live in Azerbaijan (smiles).

Will you take part in Azerbaijan’s chess life? Will you learn the Azeri language?

I’ll definitely take part in the development of chess in Azerbaijan. One of the main obligations of a grandmaster is not only playing in all possible tournaments but also helping out young chess players. So in that regard I’m ready to provide any support I can. As for the language, of course I’ll try to learn some basics, but I’d note I have very little talent for languages. For example, I spent many years in France but my French is simply terrible (laughs).  So I can’t promise to speak Azeri, but I’ll try to learn some.

What impression do Azeri grandmasters make on you?

It’s well-known that sportsmen are defined by their results. The Azerbaijan men’s team has twice won the European Championship. Becoming the strongest team in Europe twice isn’t accidentally winning it once as the German team managed – something that, more likely than not, won’t be repeated (laughs). Besides that, the Azerbaijan team shared 2nd-4th place at the previous Olympiad and only missed out on a prize on tiebreaks. In that case India had a little more luck. Nevertheless, in my view that was a successful result. So the facts, as they say, speak for themselves. The Azerbaijan team is one of the strongest in the world.

Of course the Azerbaijan Chess Federation management have big hopes for a successful team performance at the Olympiad in Baku in 2016.

For my part I’ll try to do everything I can to help the team perform well. In my view we’ll be one of the strongest teams taking part in the upcoming Olympiad. Of course the competition is huge nowadays. For example, the Chinese team is winning almost all the tournaments it competes in. The US team has been greatly strengthened by two chess players from the Top 10 of the world rating list. You can’t, of course, write off the Russian team either. Despite their failures in recent years they still has a very powerful line-up. Nevertheless, I think we’re capable of beating any team, so we’ll fight for medals.

In addition to all that you’ve also got experience of winning team events…

At any rate I’ll try to help the team as far as I can and I’ll try to play well. This isn’t my first year playing chess. I’ve already been playing for around ten years at the top level. I’ve also won a lot of medals in team events. In particular, I’ve twice been second on the first board during European Team Championships i.e. you can’t say I’m a novice. In the coming year I’ll make my Olympiad debut for Azerbaijan, but I’ve already got experience of team events. I understand how important the upcoming tournaments are for the country, so I’ll do everything that’s in my power.

By the way, when will you make your debut for the Azerbaijan team?

That will take place in the next European Team Championship, although the continental championship isn’t the same thing as the Olympiad. At the Olympiad, of course, a whole series of very strong teams will join, in particular China and the USA. As for my individual tournaments, then the first event for me under the Azeri flag will be the Spanish Team Championship, where I’m playing for a club from San Sebastian. Apart from me the team features Loek van Wely and four Spanish players. Then in October I’ll play in the strong Isle of Man Open Tournament. Immediately afterwards I’ll play in a round-robin on Malta, in a tournament with five men and five women. After that I’ll have a short break and then I’ll play in the European Team Championship for the Azerbaijan team.

Judging by your rating, which for the first time in recent years has sunk below 2700, people might get the impression you’ve suffered a decline of late?

I wouldn’t say I’ve suffered a decline. Moreover, I consider the first half of this year one of the most successful in my career. This year I won two tournaments and took third place in another. I tied for 1-2 place in the GRENKE Chess Classic 2015, beating World Champion Magnus Carlsen in classical chess. 

I just played one tournament that went terribly for me – the French Team Championship, where I lost a huge amount of rating points. I was in terrible form. I was tired. As if that wasn’t enough, there were also some other factors that influenced my play, but one tournament means nothing.

The French Team Championship was definitely an event to forget for Arkadij - although his rating dropping below 2700 probably saved the Azerbaijan Chess Federation 20,000 Euros in transfer compensation fees!

By the way, your track record includes wins against a lot of the world’s top chess players, including World Champion Magnus Carlsen, against whom nerves get the better of many people.

I’m not afraid of anyone. If I’m not mistaken in the last couple of years I’m not actually on a minus score against the world’s best grandmasters. Results like the ones I had in the French League, when I lose to chess players with a rating of 2400, are probably more connected to non-chess factors. On average I post good results in encounters with strong players and such poor play as in the French Championship indicates nothing. I probably now have the lowest rating I’ve had in the last five years, but the only reason for that is one bad tournament in France. I think I’ll increase my rating when playing for the Azerbaijan team in the European Team Championship.

Meanwhile, I looked at your stats in individual encounters with the two leading Azeri grandmasters Teimour Radjabov and Shakhriyar Mamedyarov, and I discovered that you’re on a minus. In classical games against Radjabov you have two wins and three losses, while against Mamedyarov you have two wins and five losses.

I didn’t think we’d played so much in classical chess. Perhaps it’s a matter of rapid and blitz, where the Azeri players are very strong and I can’t compare with them. In any case, I’m not going to prepare against them now. On the contrary, we’ll work together and do everything we can to help each other.

It seems you’ve already got to know Baku a bit. What impression does the city make on you?

I’d point out that ten years ago I won the first President’s Cup in Baku.

Arkadij Naiditsch eight years ago with the President's Cup towering over his board (and Nigel Short sneaking into the picture) | photo: official website

That’s pretty impressive. And ten years later you’re going to play under the Azeri flag…

Yes. Again the number 10 (laughs). I also took part in one of the last editions of the President’s Cup. Besides that I seconded Etienne Bacrot when he played in the first stage of the FIDE Grand Prix in 2008. As for the city itself, I liked it immediately. It’s become very beautiful and beautiful and pleasant of late. What I really like here is the security. It’s far from in every European metropolis that you feel as safe and comfortable as you do in Baku. Even in major German cities like Berlin and Hamburg you don’t feel entirely comfortable walking around at night alone. In the capital of Azerbaijan, though, the situation is completely different, which is very nice.

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